The Iranian revolution made me giddy. I was a theological student at the Nadwatul Ulama seminary in India at the time, and barely twenty-one. My optimism about the revolution met cold blasts of Sunni pessimism from the teachers and leadership of the madrasa who were deeply hostile to Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘Shia’ – ‘not Islamic’ – revolution. A breath of fresh air arrived at the Nadwa’s campus during the winter of 1980: the eminent Egyptian scholar, Sheikh Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi graced the city of Lucknow with a visit. Even during the 1970s and 1980s, Qaradawi had an enviable reputation in Sunni orthodox circles for his spellbindingly eloquent and highly erudite lectures, bolstered by his publications on law, theology and Islamic reform.
While the revolution was exciting, I found the infallibility of the hereditary imams in Shia theology troubling. So when Qaradawi came to our campus, I shared my concerns with him. It was not a serious objection, he declared; only a problem that could be easily solved. ‘Look,’ he said in his characteristic Egyptian Arabic, ‘we (Sunnis) believe that when a person makes a good faith intellectual effort (ijtihad) to figure God’s intentions in the texts and in the world, he will get a reward, right?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘there is a hadith that says that whoever gets the right answer in ijtihad will get two rewards, and whoever gets it wrong will get one reward.’ So don’t the Sunnis, Qaradawi asked, claim to have infallibility in ijtihad? I agreed. If you understand this, he told me, then you should understand that, in Shia teachings, the idea of infallibility is invested in the imamate or leadership of the community. The leadership, the imams, he explained, was protected from making catastrophic decisions in leading the community, hence the notion of infallibility. It was a source of divine blessing, just as in Sunnism, where scholars are protected from punishment even if their intellectual effort turns out to be incorrect. Qaradawi’s persuasive logic dissolved my concerns. It assured me that the Sunni/Shia divide is not entirely insurmountable; like him, I was determined to work to foster mutual understanding.